NYPD Demographics Unit: Breaching Civil Liberties on College Campuses

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On October 19, 2015, the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School Student Government unanimously passed a resolution demanding answers about NYPD surveillance of student groups. The resolution calls on the “administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, on City Council Speaker Melissa Mark­-Viverito and on Police Commissioner William Bratton to provide the public with answers to questions about past infringements and current protections of civil liberties on City University campuses which the former administration refused to answer and to provide a full public accounting of the NYPD policies and practices targeting civic organizations and movements with surveillance and other operations, including but not limited to efforts to obtain informant recruitment through coercion.” In particular, the resolution highlights “surveillance of environmental and human rights organizations, and surveillance and infiltration of the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters movements”.

Download the resolution here (PDF)

This follows a resolution passed by the faculty at CUNY School of Law four years ago, in October, 2011, which came about after media reports started to surface about the extensive NYPD surveillance program. According to documents received by the Associated Press (AP), the NYPD monitored Muslim student groups on six CUNY campuses, as part of a broader surveillance effort targeted toward the Muslim communities in NYC. The AP reports that the NYPD deployed undercover officers at Baruch and Brooklyn Colleges, and used police in its Cyber Intelligence Cyber to monitor students at Brooklyn and Queens, in addition to the use of “secondary” undercover agents at Hunter, CCNY, Queens, and LaGuardia. Other colleges in NYC that were targeted as part of the program include Columbia and New York University. However, NYPD surveillance was not restricted to college campuses inside New York City alone, it extended to universities elsewhere in the Northeast including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Clarkson University, the Newark and New Brunswick campuses of Rutgers, and the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook, and Potsdam.

These reports surfaced in the wake of an AP investigation, which was published two months before the CUNY surveillance controversy broke out. The investigation concluded that the NYPD was involved in a vast spying operation that included surveilling almost every corner of the Muslim community, from Muslim student groups in colleges to Muslim civil rights groups, community mosques, and even restaurants either owned or frequently visited by Muslims.

With the help of the CIA, the NYPD assembled a secret Demographics Unit, which “assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.”

The NYPD hoped the Demographics Unit would serve as an early warning system to detect terror activities. However, in more than “six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” In a June 28, 2012 deposition as part of a longstanding federal civil rights case, Assistant Chief of NYPD Thomas Galati testified that none of the conversations the officers overheard ever led to a case.

NYC’s Muslim community pushed back against the NYPD’s decade-long secret spying on them for the first time in a 54-page report titled NYPD Confidential. The report, which is based on interviews with 57 people, describes “the spying’s chilling effect on Muslim New Yorkers, who have come to distrust their friends, classmates, religious leaders, and the NYPD.”

The report details fears of NYPD infiltration into Muslim Student Associations, and a rise of self-censorship among students. For instance, “conversations relating to foreign policy, civil rights and activism are all deemed off-limits as interviewees fear such conversations would draw greater NYPD scrutiny. Parents discourage their children from being active in Muslim student groups, protests or other activism, believing that these activities would threaten to expose them to government scrutiny.”

The report suggests that the monitoring of Muslims’ political opinions has “devastating effects on classroom dynamics,” since Muslim students fear that professors might misinterpret their views and report them to the authorities. Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis is quoted in the report saying, “I think Muslim students are getting an inferior education because of this.”

Other colleges and universities in the United States should follow the example set by the CUNY Law School and prevent federal and local surveillance on college campuses, which specifically target Muslim students.